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The Great Parliamentary Debate

Karl Marx

London, June 9. The great parliamentary debate has ended, or rather perished because of hypersalivation. Baring's motion[a] was carried without opposition "amidst the general laughter of the House". The motion, insipid as it is, concludes with a war address to the Crown. Did the House declare the war "une guerre pour rire"[b]? Or did it declare itself "une parlement pour rire"[c]? At any rate, the real conclusion of the two-week debate did not lie in the acceptance of Baring's motion—a mere formality—but in the general laughter, the spontaneous muscular spasm contravening the regulations, the indiscreet cry of nature beneath which the "honourable House" buried motions and counter-motions, amendments and sub-amendments, ministry and opposition, speeches, counter-speeches, sermons, deductions, shrill sarcasm and pathetic entreaty, prayers for peace and war-cries, tactics and tactlessness, itself and its vote. The House saved itself from the laughable situation by laughing at itself. Thus it confessed that world-historical seriousness in this parliamentary medium first becomes contorted into conventional seriousness, and this contrived seriousness then turns into natural jesting.

Every attempt to get Palmerston to formulate ministerial policy, to make any statement about the object, tendency or purpose of the war failed completely. He flatly declared that

"it was impossible to question a minister, or indeed any friend, about the object of the war."[d]

It was the peace men that helped him most of all. Do you wish to know why we are waging war? There is Richard Cobden who wants peace at any price. Do you not prefer war without any price to peace at any price? Aim your blows at Richard Cobden! In this way he continually thrust Cobden or Bright or Graham or Gladstone between himself and his antagonists.

The cotton heroes did not merely serve him as padding to line his battle-dress with. More than that. He manufactured gunpowder out of their cotton. It also appeared during the debate that in Russell, just as formerly in Aberdeen, Palmerston possesses a lightning-conductor for his sacrosanct person, a lightning-conductor belonging to the Cabinet itself. It was for this purpose that he sent Russell to Vienna, for the purpose of turning him into his lightning-conductor. And Roebuck is now declaring Russell responsible for the "shortcomings"[e] of the heroic Palmerston just as Layard and Co. formerly did with Aberdeen. The "wingbeats" of his "free soul"[f] are now impeded by the Russellites just as they used to be by the Peelites. He has these weights hanging from him not in order to work, like Black Forest clocks, but so as to strike the hour wrongly.

All the cliques of the House of Commons have emerged the worse for wear from the conventional mock battle. The Peelites have at last admitted that they have hitherto been officers without armies. They have given up the pretension of forming a grouping of their own and have openly joined the Manchester School. As they were entrusted with the leadership of the army and navy during the first year of the war they have, by professing their belief in eternal peace, foolishly denounced themselves as the traitors within the coalition, to the happy surprise of Palmerston-Russell. They have made themselves impossible.

The Manchester School actually want peace in order to wage industrial war at home and abroad. They want to establish the mastery of the English bourgeoisie on the world market, where fighting is only to be permitted with their weapons—cotton-bales—and in England itself, where the aristocrat is to be pushed aside as superfluous in modern production, and the proletarian, as the mere instrument of this production, is to be subjugated, while they themselves, as the leaders of production, are to head the state and take over the offices of government. And now Cobden denounces a clergyman, Dr. Griffiths, for declaring at a public meeting that the House of Lords is superfluous. And Bright weeps over the fate of the royal children, who will be obliged by the ruin consequent on the war to wash their own shirts. Both denounce popular agitation[g]. Are these the heroes of the Anti-Corn Law League[189], who, carried to the top on the waves of popular agitation, used to denounce the "barbaric splendour of the Crown", Lords, landed aristocracy, etc., as "false production costs"? Their whole point consisted of the struggle against the aristocracy, not excepting the peace homily. And now they are denouncing the masses to the aristocracy! Et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas[h]. In this debate the Manchester School have renounced their raison d'être.

As for the Tories, they have discovered a peace party in their own bosom and proved that they have preserved their tradition as the representatives of English nationalism as little as their hatred for the "Bonapartes".

Finally, the ministerial side? Nothing characterises them better than their frantic efforts to cling to a motion which Palmerston himself had to turn down only a week before, which the proposer wished to drop, but which was accepted by Walpole in the name of the Tories, by Gladstone in the name of the peace men, and by the House in the name of "general merriment".

The Morning Herald has received the following communication from the Gulf of Finland:

"16 miles off Cronstadt, May 28. The Orion has been in to reconnoiter, and reports that the Russian fleet in Cronstadt consists of six line-of-battle ships, ready for sea; six nearly dismantled ones, thirteen apparently fitted as floating-batteries, and eight steamers of a large size, besides gun-boats, which could not be counted."

"Visited Bomarsund [...] found things exactly the same as they were left, the Russians had done nothing to repair the fortifications, we saw neither man, woman, or child ... the inhabitants fight rather shy of us, in consequence of the Russians having punished a number of them for having traded with the allied squadrons last year...".[i]

Written on June 9, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 267, June 12, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] Baring's amendment to Disraeli's motion of May 24, 1855 (see this volume, pp. 227-28). The amendment was passed by the House of Commons on June 8, 1855.—Ed.

[b] A war for laughter.—Ed.

[c] A parliament for laughter.—Ed.

[d] Palmerston's speech in the House of Commons on June 8, 1855,published in The Times, No. 22076, June 9, 1855.—Ed.

[e] Marx uses the English word.—Ed.

[f] From Georg Herwegh's poem "Aus den Bergen" (Gedichte eines Lebendigen).—Ed.

[g] The reference is to the speeches delivered in the House of Commons by Cobden on June 5, 1855, and by Bright on June 7, 1855. The Times, Nos. 22073 and 22075, June 6 and 8.—Ed.

[h] And for the sake of life to sacrifice life's only end (Juvenalis, Satirae, VIII, 85).—Ed.

[i] Quoted from two reports published in The Morning Herald, No.22450, June 6, 1855—"Gulf of Finland, 16 Miles off Cronstadt" and "Visit to Bomarsund".—Ed.

[189] The Anti-Corn Law League was founded by the Manchester factory owners Cobden and Bright in 1838. By demanding complete freedom of trade, the League fought for the abolition of the Corn Laws (see Note 14↓). In this way it sought to weaken the economic and political position of the landed aristocracy and lower the cost of living thus making possible a lowering of the workers' wages. The repeal of the Corn Laws under Peel's Tory government led to a split in the ranks of the Tories and facilitated the coming to power of the Whigs (1846). Having achieved its end, the League ceased to exist.

[14] The Corn Laws, the first of which were passed as early as the fifteenth century, imposed high import duties on agricultural products in order to maintain high prices for these products on the domestic market. The Corn Laws served the interests of the big landowners. The struggle between the industrial bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy over the Corn Laws ended in their repeal in June 1846.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.257-259), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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